On April 2 at the Fort Hood, Texas, army base, Iraq war veteran Ivan Lopez killed three people, injured 16, then shot himself before he could be taken into custody by military police. Initial reports that Lopez may have been suffering from depression, a traumatic brain injury and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have made some veterans skittish about a tie between PTSD – which affects 155,000 troops – and the propensity for suddenly turning on your own people.
Certainly this sad incident is no reason to suddenly become terrified of all people with mental disorders or all veterans of various wars. Violence is rare in America, and contrary to the media and their panics, shootings like this are particularly rare (in spite of the creepy familiarity of the location). On the other hand, the staggeringly high rate of PTSD in returning veterans does suggest something good about humanity. It’s a tragic, costly, and endless lesson – but war is bad for humans, even those who make it happen. If 22 veterans a day by last year’s count kill themselves – more die that way than they do in combat since at least 2008 – doesn’t that suggest that there is something fundamentally harmful about war, and something sadly good about humans who react so badly to having participated in it?
Even humans who are given weapons and told to fight for a noble cause of liberation do not react well to the real face of war. If their friends don’t die, civilians will, and there will often be nothing they can do about it. As unfortunate as it is that hundreds of thousands of individuals who fought in the last two U.S. wars (to say nothing of the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, who remain the greatest victims in all of this) have permanent problems both physical and mental, it’s worthy of comment that being told you are fighting for a good reason doesn’t prevent mental distress when the fight is done.
What used to be called shellshock (or neurasthenia more broadly before that) when it was identified during World War I is now known as simply PTSD (though that comes from any traumatic incident and is not war-specific). Initially, there was great debate over the cause of shellshock – which reached alarming numbers during pivotal Great War battles such as the Somme and Passchendaele. Some doctors were convinced it was psychological, physical, or just good old-fashioned cowardice on the part of soldiers. Mixed in with enlightened psychiatrists such as William Rivers, who used "talking cures," were folks more interested in brutalizing traumatized soldiers into manning up and doing their "duty." World War II had its share of PTSD-suffering soldiers as well, but that tends to be brushed over in general histories of that "good war." And the familiar American trope of the unstable Vietnam war veteran remains a useful one for fiction, and an unfortunate one for real life, considering that the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 30 percent of the soldiers suffered such a trauma (as opposed to 11 to 20 percent of Iraq or Afghanistan war vets). In the modern era, what was once "shellshock" is seen as real trauma – some of it traumatic brain injury-based, some simply psychological – but treating it through a backlogged bureaucracy is another matter entirely. The government seems unable to cope with the dire effects of the wars it started, even on its own soldiers.
What about war makes people suffer so psychologically? There is no easy, ideological answer, but it’s hard for the antiwar crowd not to interpret facts such as the numbers of suicides having doubled in deployed veterans since 2004 as something telling. Clearly, soldiers endlessly deployed and redeployed have suffered from combat stress. But there has been a three-fold increase in PTSD-like symptoms in troops who have not even been in battle. This could be partially an effect of lessened standards in the military’s admittance of troops. But it also ties into a lack of job opportunities and a difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. Recruiters who sell young people on the idea of gaining job experience and skills are overselling the point to people who need their education paid for. And after the camaraderie of the armed forces, living life in civilian circles where people have no idea what you’ve been through makes drug and alcohol abuse understandable as well. Plus, PTSD tends to happen more often to younger individuals who suffered a trauma. Correspondingly, the rate of suicide is four times higher in 18- to 24-year-old veterans than in the civilian population.
Fearing veterans doesn’t do anyone any good. Ivan Lopez was not your average soldier. And your average soldier in distress is most likely going to hurt him or herself. Regardless, the public needs a good, long look in the mirror when it comes to its treatment of veterans. We’re all guilty of a vile mixture of an abstract support for "the troops" (slap that on your bumper) and a complete disinterest in their well-being when they return from the wars the majority of us supported or at least tolerated. And thanks to an initially timid, now distracted news media, the public never sees what real war looks like, either. But soldiers do, and it hurts them. Even if they are not the pure "good guys" that war hawks claim; even if we wish they hadn’t joined the military at all, soldiers got their own sort of raw deal thanks to the work of the war propagandists. Soldiers are not innocent victims of war, but they are also part of its mindless machinery and rarely escape unscathed. Maybe the PTSD soldiers so often suffer says humans were made for better things than war.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.